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Interview: Gary Aspden talks about adidas Spezial

Published: Fri Sep 30 2016

You probably know this already, but the new adidas Spezial stuff will be available very soon (00:01 on Thursday the 6th of October, to be precise). In the trainer department, we’ve got the return of the Manchester, the Indoor Super and the Seaside (now known as the Harwood), as well as a new shoe by the name of Bulhill. There’s also some classy clothes too.

Rather than try and describe it all ourselves, we thought it’d be a lot more interesting to get main-man Gary Aspden to explain more.

With that in mind, here’s an informative interview with him…

Maybe a boring first question, but what’ve you been up to lately?

I have been working hard... I didn't get away all summer so I am currently in Kingston, Jamaica getting a few days break before the next Spezial drop kicks in. Went to a place called the Dub Club on Sunday night with some friends. It is held at the house where Augustus Pablo lived. Great sound system, great music, raw juices (if you like that sort of thing), ital food and no idiots.

I suppose we better talk about Spezial shouldn’t we… what are you most pleased with this time around?

I’m especially pleased about the reaction to the Spezial clothing this season. It's a tougher one to crack than the footwear, but we have learned some lessons from the first couple of seasons. We have started using more affordable fabrics which has brought the prices down and it has begun to really pick up momentum as a result.

It was great to get the opportunity to shoot this latest range with Nick Knight as I am a big fan of him and his work and he has been a supporter of Spezial from the beginning. It's always preferable to work where there are existing synergies and relationships.

The GT Manchester SPZL.

You’ve brought back the Manchester. What’s the story with these? Am I right in saying the colour was based off the Dublin?

The adidas Manchester weren't actually based on the Dublin. Back in 2001 when we created the first Manchesters there had been a Dublin reissue but the upper specs on the silhouette were miles off the OG Dublin. In fact all the 'city' shoes that had been released at that point were pretty inaccurate (adidas have gone some way to rectifying this in their consequent reissues).

I proposed to adidas that we should do a 'city' shoe to tie in with the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester to acknowledge the love that has been shown to the three stripes there. We needed a silhouette that would be appropriate for lovers of all things traditionally adidas so we opted for the Handball Spezial as a foundation for the adidas Manchester.

Given the options that were available to us, this was a style that had upper specifications that weren't that far removed from some of its earlier incarnations. Handball Spezials are one of the greatest sports shoes ever made in my opinion — yes there are some slight variations in the vintage shoes from country to country but I love their consistency and how they have never been adopted 'ironically' by hipsters.

That shoe is about as Germanic as it gets and sums up much of what inspired the philosophy behind the Spezial range. It is a shoe that was designed specifically for Handball players — a specialist sport that bears very little relation to British culture — which were then picked up and adopted by working class kids across the north of England. I think there's something really odd yet beautiful about that.

Myself and Mike Chetcuti (who is a born and bred Mancunian) selected the colours from a colour wheel one Friday afternoon and very deliberately chose colours that would not alienate United or City fans. That first version was essentially a colour up on an existing silhouette and there were none of the standard rounds of sample reviews due to the tight timelines in order to have them out before the Games.

No one could have anticipated the way those shoes would be received and that how over the passage of time that the shoe would become a ‘grail’ for so many adidas collectors in the UK - particularly lads who go to football.

Whilst I have a lot of love for the 2002 version I have always felt that the shoe could be improved hence the name GT Manchester SPZL. GT Manchester is an abbreviation for Greater Manchester and is also a play on the name of the vintage Stockholm GT. Most importantly is a statement of intent for this release — these are in my view greater than any of the previous adidas Manchester incarnations. We redressed the toe box, the specs of the toe overlay, added a Mod Trefoil de-bossed tongue and a Spezial footbed as well as using better quality upper materials than previous versions.

I’ve seen Manchesters go for pretty high prices on eBay. Why do you think people are so mad about these?

Manchester is part of the adidas heartland that is the North (it has been that way for decades now), the shoe has only ever been released twice (both times in limited quantities) and they are a strong colourway. The resell value is really high on the previous versions as they are a combination of being very popular and incredibly scarce. It’s good that people who really love the shoe can finally get hold of them. I have been told that adidas have no plans to do any more for some time after these are gone.

The Indoor Super SPZL.

What’s the story with the Indoor Super? What do you remember about these the first time around? What inspired you to bring these beauties back? 

These were an important shoe when I was growing up in the North West. These were THE shoe to have and their popularity outlasted a lot of other footwear silhouettes back in the 80s. Those who couldn't afford them would wear Hi Tec Squash but Indoor Super were the ones. Worn with frayed jeans they really were an essential shoe. We wanted to see if we could improve the previous reissue as for me the toe box wasn't nearly as flat as the OG on the 2003 re-issue. We had to play around with lasts and toolings but I am very, very happy with the final result. If you put them next to a vintage pair and then the 2003 re-issue you can see how much effort has gone into developing them.

What new creations have you made this time round?

There is the Bulhill SPZL which is somewhere between a leisure shoe and a trainer. The upper is based on a little-known vintage shoe called the adidas Rimini married up with the Hawaii tooling. We did them in two colourways, a navy and a brown. Both are colours that are synonymous with the leisure series. The name is a play on an area of my home town, Darwen.

The Bulhill SPZL. 

I know you’ve been influenced by a lot of classic German stuff previously… Christiane F, Kraftwerk, Bowie in Berlin… what were your influences this time around?

It's all centred around the Modernist Trefoil graphic that we used on the half zip knit in the first season was influenced by 1950s German graphics. The Mod Trefoil has been reproduced on banners and stickers by football fans all over the world which still blows my mind a bit. Football fans are not easily swayed so when I see Spezial referenced on banners I take it as a massive compliment. I wanted to acknowledge and reciprocate that in some way. The graphic is deconstructed and subtly used on pockets, in linings and under collars as well as on some of the footwear and in the apparel graphics.

When it came to shooting the collection with Nick Knight my main reference were some Dutch football fans that I used to know in Amsterdam back in the late 80s. I originally met them on holiday in Greece and stayed in contact with them afterwards. They were from a group of Ajax fans who called themselves the F-Side. They were obsessed with the Rolling Stones and Prince and a couple of them would wear sportswear under Chevignon leather jackets with long hair.

I was looking to do a modern take on that through the styling and casting of the shoot. I have known Wolf (who modelled it) since he was a kid through going along to football with him and his dad and he had the right look (and hair). Shooting it in the neutral environment of a studio gave us something that wasn't easy to pigeonhole.

The Harwood SPZL.

There’s a lot more to Spezial than reissue stuff. How do you balance pleasing the core adidas die-hard guys who don’t want to see anything changed, whilst also keeping things fresh and interesting?

It's a fine balance to strike. I fully realise that people will have personal preferences which is why we make sure there is diversity in the footwear offering. Aside from the 1:1 footwear reissues that give context to the overall range, we try to create new footwear products that would sit seamlessly in a 70s or 80s adidas catalogue. It's about identifying that traditional adidas aesthetic and reinventing it.

That was essentially the ideology behind what we did with the adidas Manchester which are now accepted as a bona fide part of adidas's history. We like to try out some new ideas and not constantly retrace our own footsteps with nostalgia. There are limitations on what can and cannot be done — we don't have free rein to create anything from the footwear back catalogue because adidas don't have all the toolings and lasts.

I personally am very proud of a number of the footwear hybrids that we have created so far. Noel Gallagher said to me recently that he thinks the adidas Albrecht is possibly one of his favourite ever adidas shoes which is very flattering as he, like myself, has worn adidas since he was a kid.

Introducing new technologies into the Spezial range in a way that move it forward but don't compromise its aesthetic is a fine balance to strike. For example, the Lawton TT this season is inspired by knitted Freizeit pieces — we wanted to contemporise that idea. It doesn't look overtly technical bit contains a technology in the knit that the adidas Running team have spent nearly ten years developing. The knit is a mix of merino wool with technical yarns that make it breathable and high wicking. This is the first time that apparel technology has been used in a lifestyle product by adidas and it ended up taking us two seasons to get it right. It's a case of finding the adidas technologies that translate well to the overall look of Spezial. I have never wanted Spezial to be seen as purely a retro range — it's about looking at vintage products, taking their best bits and discarding the parts that are no longer valid.

We don't expect to please everyone with everything. There will inevitably be some negativity online from ‘experts’ and critics, particularly as the range grows in its popularity but I can't get hung up on that given the massive amount of support and passion that people have shown and continue to show for the range. When we first started Spezial we hoped it would cater to some of the most devoted adidas purists who were regularly complaining that adidas wasn't doing enough to cater to their tastes. Ironically now that Spezial is up and running and is a success some of them seem to be the quickest to criticise it! Fault finding seems to be the nature of the beast, however, I know first-hand the effort that the team put into getting this range right. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and some critique may actually be reasonable and justified — it certainly keeps us on our toes! The love that people have shown for Spezial has been a major factor in its continued existence so we can never be complacent about that.

What next for Spezial, can you divulge anything else that’s in the pipeline?

There will be a second drop in November that will contain the Spezial teambag that I get asked about every other day on my Instagram. I just hope the UK stockists have bought enough to satisfy the demand this time.

Moving on slightly, it seems collecting adidas trainers (and anything else, for that matter), has blown up a bit lately. Maybe it’s something to do with the internet and social media. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think there’ll be a time when all the old adidas trainers have been discovered? Or is it still endless?

Trainers are bigger than ever. I believe a big reason for that is that they are one of the few things that people can't get for free online. There are people that don't want to pay for music, there are people that don't want to pay for films... but people will still pay for trainers and clothing. Vintage 70s/80s adidas shoes are becoming increasingly harder to find and the prices have gone up dramatically over the past decade, however, if you dig around there is still some stuff out there.

I just had a guy in the US contact me last week to say that he has over 200 pairs of OG unworn adidas from the 70s and 80s that belonged to his late father (who was German). He said he would be prepared to loan should we ever take the Spezial exhibition to the States. A number of people have said to me that the Spezial exhibitions and the ‘Sole Searching in South America’ films kickstarted a lot of people back into collecting adidas here in the UK. It's impossible to say for sure if that is true but I'd like to think that Spezial has been a contributing factor within that.

The classic adidas stuff is sportswear, but the people who go mad over it probably aren’t going to use it for sports – not many people who search for Indoor Supers on eBay play squash. I’m not really sure where this question is going, but why do you think people crave this function-based stuff so much? 

With sportswear, outdoor wear and military surplus there is a gravitas to those products that comes from the fact that they are designed primarily to fulfil a function/purpose. We have to remember that whilst a lot of elements of adidas Originals products nowadays are loved for their aesthetic (e.g. coloured suspension plugs, colour blocking on midsoles, Dellinger Web etc.) those features were at the cutting edge of performance sports technology when they were first released.

Whilst it's important that products look good, the best functional products are generally developed alongside industrial engineers rather than fashion designers. Essentially that dedication to performance is the difference between sportswear and casual/leisurewear for me. Fashion and streetwear brands will often look to these functional products as a reference point for what they do. I like that 70s adidas tag line of ‘sports and leisure wear’ as mentioning ‘leisure wear’ was an acknowledgement that not everything they produced at that time was performance dedicated — the Freizeit range or the Carlo Gruber collaboration are good examples of this. They were definitely ahead of their time there. We have tried to reflect that philosophy in Spezial.

Okay, thanks for doing this Gary, have you got any wise words you’d like to pass on?

It's nice to be nice.

The adidas Spezial stuff goes online at 00:01 on Thursday the 6th of October (BST).

Our Manchester shop will also be open from 00:01 until 02:00 on Thursday the 6th of October (BST) so you can buy the GT Manchester SPZL from its hometown. Only this trainer will be available from the shop during that special opening. One pair per customer. Good luck.